Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep, March 2016

We received a lot of picture books and board books in the mail during the first few months of the year. For this month's Reading With... I'm sharing Miss Muffet's and Bo Peep's reactions to some of their favorites, as well as my reactions to a few titles I chose not to share with them. All of the titles named in this post are listed at the end with full bibliographic information.

New Favorites



Miss Muffet always gets excited whenever new books arrive on our doorstep, but she typically only takes a strong liking to a few titles. This Winter, there were five titles that really got her attention and caused her to beg for multiple re-readings.

Blanche Hates the Night (ISBN: 9781771471589), about a little girl who does everything she can think up to avoid going to bed, including singing to the moon, arrived during a time when Miss Muffet was testing her own bedtime limits. Though she can't remember Blanche's name half the time (she has called her everything from "Branch" to "Lunch"), she sees in her a kindred naughty spirit. I like the book myself, for the use of light and shadow, and the fun moment where Blanche hangs her pajamas from the moon, asserting that this is the only thing for which the moon is useful. This book has gone out with us on stroller walks and been a frequent choice to have in bed with Miss Muffet during quiet time.

I requested Hoot and Peep (ISBN: 9780525428374) for two reasons. The first was that I love Lita Judge's Red Sled and wanted to see something new from her. The other was that Miss Muffet is still really into owls. This story about siblings who disagree about how owls should communicate - Hoot says they should hoot, while Peep prefers to make such creative sounds as "Schweedly peep!" - is set in Paris. The illustrations, though primarily focused on the two owls and their expressions, give a nice sense of the city as seen from church towers and rooftops. I liked the book well enough, but it is Miss Muffet who has latched onto it. I asked her, after a couple of back-to-back readings whether she thinks Little Bo Peep has "owly wisdom" as Hoot eventually realizes his sister does, and she laughed and said "No, Mama!" But there is something in that sibling relationship that keeps her coming back for more.

Grandma purchased Stanley the Mailman (ISBN: 9781561458677) for Miss Muffet for Easter, but we also received a review copy, which I read to her once, and then put away so as not to spoil the Easter surprise. Stanley's newest career is that of mailman, and his day begins before the sun comes up. As his day progresses, he delivers packages and letters mailed to such adorable addresses as "Myrtle, Myrtle's House, near Shamus and Little Woo's House" and "Little Woo, Shamus and Little Woo's House, just down the road from Myrtle's House, before you get to Charlie's House."  Ever since we sent Valentines to some of our relatives last month, Miss Muffet has been really interested in the mail, so I suspect this one will become an even greater favorite in the weeks to come.

I have never been to San Francisco or Chicago, but I still enjoyed reading San Francisco ABC (ISBN: 9781570619946) and Chicago ABC (ISBN: 9781570619939), both of which star Pete and his dog, Larry. We have some family connections to those areas, so I was able to hook Miss Muffet by explaining which relatives lived or currently live in these cities, and because she is so interested in the alphabet right now, it didn't matter to her that most of the landmarks are places neither of us has ever seen. The most brilliant thing about these books is the way they deal with the letter X. Instead of trying to find some obscure landmark that starts with X, both books use the X to mark the location of its city on a map. This is the best way I have seen an alphabet book handle the X issue!  I also really like the art work, which is very colorful and vintage-looking. We also received board books starring the same characters - Larry Loves Boston and Larry Loves Washington, DC, both of which are very well done and have joined Little Bo Peep's board book stash.

Finally, The Opposite Zoo (ISBN: 9780553511277),  while a bit reminiscent of Goodnight, Gorilla, is a beautifully illustrated book featuring pairs of zoo animals who exhibit opposite characteristics. Because our review copy was an unbound galley, I couldn't share it with Miss Muffet very easily, but we did read it a couple of times, and she really loved the artwork. She wanted to look carefully at each picture, and she wanted to know the names of the animals and make their sounds. I usually enjoy Il Sung Na, and I liked this book as well as his previous titles.

Birthday Books



During 2016, Bo Peep will turn one and Miss Muffet will turn three, so these books will be perfect for us when that time comes. The Importance of Being Three (ISBN: 9780525428695), while primarily a celebration of all the things three-year-olds can do, is also a great lesson on understanding the number three, and being able to count to three. I did read the book to Miss Muffet, and she did ask a ton of questions about the pictures, but she also seemed to know that she was not yet three and therefore maybe not quite ready to relate to everything the kids in the pictures were doing.

The artwork in You Are One (ISBN: 9781771470728) is interesting - it's done in a collage style, but the babies all have realistic faces, and the expressions they make will be familiar to anyone who has ever known a one-year-old. The text is the usual bittersweet reflection on that emotional first year of a child's life, and I question whether kids really relate to that, even at just 12 months old, but for a parent whose child is about to reach that first birthday milestone, this will be a big hit.

Board Books



123 Moose (ISBN: 9781632170323) and O is for Orca (ISBN: 9781632170330) are nature-themed concept books illustrated with photographs. While neither is especially memorable for me, O is for Orca has made an impression on Little Bo Peep. At a recent playdate, she sat in her car seat in a room full of wild toddlers, happily turning the book over and over and occasionally even flipping open a page. This was her first time really handling a book on her own, and I was pleased to note that she had not yet figured out how to eat it, and that she seemed genuinely interested in engaging with the book because it was a book, and not just because it was a random object. A friend also grabbed the book and read it to her toddler during this same playdate, and she was impressed by the variety of animals, but not as thrilled with the ending where, she said, "I guess they just gave up when they got to the end of the alphabet."

We also received an unbound excerpt of In the Wind (ISBN: 9781561458547) from Peachtree Publishers. While the artwork struck me as a little bit outdated at first, the rhyming text is spot on, and the experience of flying a kite on a windy day comes fully to life for the youngest readers. I liked the book and would definitely borrow a finished copy from the library if one is available.

Reading without Little Miss Muffet or Little Bo Peep



These final four titles are picture books I read on my own, but chose not share with Miss Muffet and Bo Peep.

Echo Echo (ISBN: 9780803739925) is a collection of reverso poems by the same team that created Mirror Mirror and Follow Follow, both of which drew their inspiration from fairy tales. This time, the poems are based on characters from Greek mythology. While I have always liked the form of these poems, I find I grow weary of it when I read an entire book. The strongest pieces in the book are the ones which represent two characters' opposing viewpoints on the same situation, as these disparate interpretations of the same events are what make this poetry form resonate so strongly.  The artwork is also very appealing. I'm not sure yet whether this book will be added to our permanent family collection since it will be years before we can use it, but it would certainly make a great supplement to a unit of study on mythology for elementary and even middle school readers.

It is always a struggle to find robot picture books, which is why I was pleased to receive Raybot (ISBN: 9780843183009). While the cartoonish style and commercial look of the illustrations ultimately caused me to decide not to share the book with Miss Muffet, I did think the book would work well for library story time. Raybot's search for a puppy includes lots of onomatopoeia, and it's filled with humor and colorful pictures. It would require some preparation before reading aloud as there is a lot going on on some of the pages, but it would be worth the extra effort to be able to do a robot theme! (For best results, pair Raybot with Hello, Robots by Bob Staake.)

I did look at My House is Alive! (ISBN:  9781771471367) with Miss Muffet because she has started wondering about everyday noises, and the science behind how things work in general. We didn't read very much because she got distracted pretty quickly, and the level of the text was above her current comprehension level, but this is not the fault of the book at all. For a four or five year old listener, it would have been perfect, as it answers the difficult kinds of questions kids of that age tend to ask their parents, and it dispels any fears they may have about the noises they hear in the middle of the night.

Finally, Mom, Dad, Our Books, and Me (ISBN: 9781771472012) was a huge disappointment. While it pretends to be a book celebrating literacy, it focuses almost entirely on "reading" things that do not involve words, such as the sky's weather signs, the time on a watch, and "love poems in [a] boyfriend's eyes." I am already weary of picture book love letters about reading, and since this one isn't even really about books, I couldn't figure out what kids are meant to learn from it. (Unlike all the other books in this post, this title will be published in April.)


Books Mentioned in This Post


I received review copies of each of the books on this list from their respective publishers.
  • Echo Echo by Marilyn Singer. 2/16/16. Dial Books. 9780803739925 
  • The Importance of Being Three by Lindsay Ward. 2/16/16. Dial Books. 9780525428695 
  • Larry Loves Boston by John Skewes. 2/23/16. Little Bigfoot. 9781632170477
  • Larry Loves Washington, D.C. by John Skewes. 2/23/16. Little Bigfoot. 9781632170484
  • 1 2 3 Moose by Andrea Helman. 2/23/16. Little Bigfoot. 9781632170323
  • O is for Orca by Andrea Helman. 2/23/16. Little Bigfoot. 9781632170330
  • Hoot and Peep by Lita Judge. 3/1/16. Dial Books.  9780525428374
  • In the Wind by Elizabeth Spurr. 3/1/6. Peachtree Publishers. 9781561458547
  • Stanley the Mailman by William Bee. 3/1/16. Peachtree Publishers. 9781561458677
  • The Opposite Zoo by Il Sung Na. 3/8/16. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 9780553511277
  • Blanche Hates the Night by Sybille Delacroix. 3/15/16. OwlKids Books. 9781771471589 
  • Chicago ABC by John Skewes. 3/15/16. Little Bigfoot. 9781570619939
  • My House is Alive by Scot Ritchie. 3/15/16. Owlkids Books. 9781771471367
  • San Francisco ABC by John Skewes. 3/15/16. Little Bigfoot. 9781570619946
  • You Are One by Sara O'Leary. 3/15/16. Owlkids Books. 9781771470728
  • Raybot by Adam F. Watkins.  3/22/16. Price Stern Sloan. 9780843183009 
  • Mom, Dad, Our Books, and Me by Danielle Marcotte. 4/12/16. Owlkids Books. 9781771472012

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

When Maria Merryweather's father dies and leaves her with no means of supporting herself, she and her beloved governess, Miss Heliotrope, along with the family dog, Wiggins, move in with Sir Benjamin, Maria's great uncle, at Moonacre Manor. Almost immediately, Maria realizes there are many unusual things about the manor: animals with higher than average intelligence, mysterious beings who cook food and deliver clothes, and a dark history involving the Black Men, who have taken over part of the valley and threaten the safety of Maria and others at the manor. As she begins to uncover the secrets of the manor's past, Maria also discovers that she may be the moon princess who is destined to help break the curse that lies over the manor and free the Merryweather property from the Black Men.

The Little White Horse was not really on my radar until I started considering what I wanted to read for this project, and my husband mentioned it to me. I was skeptical, since the cover suggests high fantasy of the highest order, but wanting to fill my list with a wide range of titles, I decided to add it into the mix. This, as it turns out, was a smart move, because I really love this story.

I love the way it begins with a very real-life situation - a young girl losing her money and having to move in with the only relative who would take her - but that there is a sense of other-worldliness about the narrative from the start. In that sense, it reminds me a lot of Madeleine L'Engle's books, where regular people stumble upon these supernatural and spiritual mysteries and come to discern their own roles within them. Whereas L'Engle seems to fumble through these types of stories in many cases, however, Goudge sets a standard and presents a world so carefully constructed it is impossible not to buy into it 100 percent. The concept of a moon princess who will restore harmony to Moonacre Manor and its environs sounds ridiculous in the abstract, but in this book, because of the author's slow and careful revelation of each detail, it becomes wholly believable and emotionally resonant.

Another thing I love about this book is the religious imagery. This is clearly a religious book, with a firm knowledge that there is a Creator, and also many echoes of Christian beliefs. A major plot line involves returning a portion of land to God in order to make amends for wrongs committed by the Merryweathers, and there is also an Old Parson who is heavily involved in helping Maria understand that she may be the moon princess, and many of whose lines of dialogue read as symbolic comments on religious belief in general. As a mom raising Catholic daughters, I am pleased to know this book now so that I don't miss having them read it when they reach the appropriate ages.

Finally, I just really love that this book is a fairy tale with a hard-won happy ending. Maria is in grave danger through much of the story, and though she is very positive, there are moments where it looks as though she and the other characters on her side will never triumph. Of course, because this is a fairy tale, the reader is always pretty sure things will be okay, but the way in which they become okay is just beautifully written and wonderfully satisfying. I am not one for Pollyanna-type endings, but you'd have to be the Grinch not to feel elated when everything comes full circle in this book.

I made the terrible mistake of watching the 2008 film based on this book (The Secret of Moonacre), and I really wanted to tear my hair out. All of the religious elements are removed, including the character of the Old Parson, and the young boy, Robin, whom Maria befriends, is rewritten to be the son of one of the villainous Black Men, thus ruining one of my favorite elements of the book - the fact that Robin visited Maria in his dreams as a younger child. The movie is visually striking, but horrendously insulting to the book, and probably the worst film adaptation of a children's book I've ever seen. No matter how you are tempted, if you love this book, avoid the movie. And if you don't yet know this book, read it, so you can love it, too.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett (1948)

In My Father's Dragon, the narrator's father, Elmer Elevator, has an adventure (as a child) going to rescue a dragon from Wild Island. In short chapters, the narrator explains how her father packs for the trip, finds the island, outsmarts the animal natives, and eventually liberates his dragon.

This is a children's book that is probably best appreciated by young children. As an adult, I had too many grown-up questions (such as, why must there be a narrator? why couldn't Elmer just tell the story?) that stood in my way of appreciating the story for what it was. I did like the different methods Elmer used to keep the animals from attacking him, and I appreciated how the fantasy elements have kept the book feeling fresh for 68 years; I just didn't feel any particular emotional connection to the story or its main character.

My Father's Dragon would make an excellent read-aloud for a preschooler who is interested in hearing longer stories. The chapters are short enough to read at bedtime, and there are plenty of engaging illustrations to help provide context and keep young minds focused on the story. Dragons are also a perennially popular topic among kids of all ages, and there are never enough dragon books, so it's wonderful that this book continues to hold up so well generation after generation. Beginning readers could also read this story independently, but because of the conceit that the events of the book happen to the narrator's father, it would be more effective as a read-aloud, because it gives kids the idea that maybe they, too, could be related to Elmer Elevator.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud (2003)

In a Britain ruled by magicians, Nathaniel is the apprentice to the unpopular and ineffective Arthur Underwood. Underwood routinely underestimates Nathaniel's true powers, and on one fateful day when Nathaniel is eleven, he allows the powerful magician Simon Lovelace to humiliate Nathaniel. Determined to have his revenge - and to prove his abilities - Nathaniel takes it upon himself to summon a djinn named Bartimaeus. He sends Bartimaeus to steal the amulet of Samarkand from Simon Lovelace, and to hide it in his own master's study, hoping to get his revenge by embarrassing Lovelace. What Nathaniel does not realize, however, is the importance of the amulet, or the dangers of summoning a demon who might be able to learn his true name. Before long, Nathaniel's and Bartimaeus's fate are bound up together, and there is a good chance neither of them will survive what is to come.

This is a very long book, and it took me a very long time to read (two weeks) compared to the 2-3 hours it usually takes me to read a middle grade or YA novel. The point of view shifts back and forth between Bartimaeus, whose witty first-person narration includes lots of references to historical events and footnotes on nearly every page, and Nathaniel, whose chapters are told in the third person. There is a lot of information to take in about the world of this story - alternate history, the complex procedures for summoning demons, the different types of demons and their different powers, the rules for naming wizards, etc. - but I didn't have trouble catching on. Everything is well-established and revealed as needed in the text. From a purely structural standpoint, the book is solid, and the characters are interesting, even if they are not likable.

The main thing that struck me about this book, though, is how dark it is, and how there is no sense of good. The magicians are selfish, conceited, and opportunistic, and the demons are violent, amoral, and cruel. Underwood's wife and one of Nathaniel's tutors (also a woman) are the only kind characters in the entire book, and though Nathaniel is devoted to them, his attempts at showing any love toward them are immediately condemned as immature and useless. Most books of this type highlight the struggle between good and evil, but this one focuses instead on the continual struggles between different types of evil. I guess parts of the book were entertaining, and certainly the sections written in Bartimaeus's voice are clever and fun to read, but I never felt fully comfortable with the idea of indulging in the evil thoughts of these characters without so much as a glimmer of hope for their conversion to the good. I would have serious reservations about handing this book to my own children, not only because of the lack of hope and beauty, but also because of the chance that they might try to emulate Nathaniel's actions. (As Simcha Fischer says, "[Satan] doesn't care if you are kidding or not when you call him by name." I don't think playing around with pentacles and such is a good idea.)  

I do think the story could be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of magic, and the way history would be forever altered if men were allowed to accomplish their every whim by summoning all-powerful beings to their aid, but few teens are going to think of it that way on their own. It is possible (even likely) that this first book only sets the stage for the full journey, and Nathaniel will find the good in life yet, but this book, on its own, is not something I can say I would recommend to other like-minded readers. (C. Orthodoxy has a great post about this that goes into much greater detail. But beware of spoilers.)

Overall, as an adult reader, I found this book compelling, and I think a child with a well-formed conscience could read it and take something away from it without his own sense of morality being affected. Still, I don't see this at all as a Harry Potter read-alike, and I would not feel comfortable giving it to readers under age 16.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Reading Through History: The Open Gate by Kate Seredy (1943)

Probably the best discovery I made last year is the fact that Newbery-winning author Kate Seredy lived for many years in Montgomery, NY, which is very near to where I grew up, and is the town in which I had my first library job. This fact alone was enough to make me want to read all of her books, and I got off to a good start with The White Stag, The Good Master, and The Singing Tree. But regardless of how beautifully written those other books are, it is The Open Gate which has caused me to fall completely in love with this author's work, because it is actually set in and around places I know well and can easily envision.

The story opens in New York City in June 1941. The Preston family - Janet, Dick, their parents, and their grandmother, called Gran - live in a fancy apartment with many modern amenities, which make their lives very easy and convenient. When Mr. Preston loses his job at an advertising firm, he decides that the family will take a trip upstate to relax before he begins looking for work. Gran is thrilled by the idea of the trip, since she believes her son and grandchildren have become soft due to city living, and because she not-so-secretly wishes for a place to live with fewer buttons to press. On the way to their destination in Sullivan County, the family decide to pull off onto a side road in Orange County to have lunch. Nearby, Gran spots a sign for an auction and announces that she would prefer to stop there instead. Mr. Preston obliges, and once there, gets the bidding started on a piece of property. To his great surprise, no one else places a bid, and suddenly, the family owns an entire farm! Though Mr. Preston is at first eager to correct his mistake and continue on with his plan, he warms up to the idea, and before long these city slickers are bringing in livestock, making friends with the neighbors, and settling in to live in Orange County permanently.

The most wonderful thing about this book is its characters. The Prestons encounter two very interesting families as they begin their lives as farmers: Mr. Van Keuran, and his cold, stern wife, who are raising their artistic grandson, Andy, after the tragic death of his parents, and Mike and his wife, Linka, Slovakian immigrants whose son has gone into the military in anticipation of the United States entering World War II. These characters not only welcome the Prestons to farm life; they also form close friendships with the family, and in time, are changed for the better by the arrival of the city slickers. Through these friendships, the story slowly shifts from a comic tale of city people fumbling their way through farming, to a testament to the power of friendship, and the value to be found in returning to a slower, simpler way of living where people really spend time getting to know one another.

Another wonderful thing about this book is the way it incorporates history into daily life. Radio reports punctuate the story with news of what is happening in Europe, and eventually what happens in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Most children's books and films about this time period jump right into the action, showing kids what it was like on the front lines, or in Nazi Germany, or in England during night bombings. The fact that this book focuses on the average rural American child's experience of these events makes it easier for kids to relate to World War II, as they can put themselves in the shoes of a child their same age, living in circumstances similar to their own more easily than they can picture themselves as a soldier, resistance leader, or concentration camp survivor.

My favorite thing about this book, though, is the inclusion of references to places I have lived or frequently visited. My husband read this book aloud to me, and when I heard him mispronounce "Shawangunk" (the correct way to say it is "Shon-gum") I nearly fell out of my chair in excitement. I grew up in the hamlet of Wallkill within the Town of Shawangunk, but I have never seen it referenced in fiction before. I got so excited I actually took a picture:


How I made it to adulthood without being aware of Kate Seredy is beyond me, but I hope to visit the Montgomery Library on a future trip home to see her papers, and maybe we'll go track down where she lived as well.

The Open Gate is every bit as well-written - though perhaps a bit more sentimental than - The Good Master or The Singing Tree. It's hard to find, but definitely worth tracking it down on inter-library loan if you can.  And now that I have discovered Kate Seredy, I've already got two more of her books on deck to read and review: A Tree for Peter and Chestry Oak.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Book Review: Nancy and Plum by Betty MacDonald (1952)

After the death of their parents, sisters Nancy and Pamela (Plum) were left in the care of an uncle, who, knowing very little about children, immediately placed them in a boarding house with Mrs. Monday, who promises to look after them. In truth, Mrs. Monday is a horrible caretaker, forcing the children to wear rags and issuing over-the-top punishments for even the most minor of infractions. When Nancy and Plum discover that she has been concealing correspondence from their uncle and stealing gifts from him to give her to own niece, the two girls decide the only thing to do is escape.

This delightful novel by the author of the beloved Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series is based on stories the author used to tell her sister as a child. Though there is no magic in the story, there is a sort of fanciful feeling to it. MacDonald draws very clear distinctions between good and evil, and though the girls are often in danger, their imaginations and sense of hope keep the story from becoming bogged down in disappointment and distress. This is very much a story about wish fulfillment and happy endings, and the question is never whether the girls will escape, but how they will do it, and how they will get away with doing it.

What is most interesting to me about this book is the way MacDonald uses adult characters. Many books try to leave the adults out of things and let the kids find their way on their own, in the hopes of empowering children. This book, though, does have strong child characters, but the adults who help them are also brave, strong, and determined, even though Mrs. Monday attempts to bully them as much as she does the children. It’s a strange connection to make, but I kept thinking about Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes, in which adults also play a major role in pulling a kid out of unsafe circumstances. Not many children’s books are willing to convey adults as caring and capable, so I found that to be very refreshing.

Because it begins on Christmas Eve with the girls stuck in the boarding house all alone without any presents or special food, Nancy and Plum would make a nice family read-aloud for the holiday season. It would make a nice read-alike for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which has similar subject matter, as well as the Swallows and Amazons series, as Nancy and Plum have much in common with the plucky and imaginative Blacketts.